France (2017) Dir. Eric Judor
The way the world is going at the moment, the apocalypse is likely to happen sooner rather than later. How we plan our survival is a less cut and dried proposition since there are many different social ideals to accommodate. Rebuilding a society with so many clashing philosophies might make Armageddon a preferable option.
Urban family Victor (Eric Judor), Jeanne (Celia Rosich), and 6 year-old daughter Margaux (Marie Helmer) visit old friend Jean-Paul (Michel Nabokoff) in the country. They find him living in a hippie commune where the dwellers have rejected modern society, adopting a freer living without constraints of technology and oppressive rules and labels.
When Jean-Paul’s daughter Maeva (Claire Chust) reads on social media that a pandemic has hit the outside world, the commune believes they are the only survivors, but problems emerge when nobody can agree on how to continue now they have nothing to rebel against, quickly dissolving into a free-for-all of dissension, duplicity and disaster.
I wish could say that the title Problemos didn’t have any reflection on this film but sadly this isn’t the case. This might be putting people off early but it felt like watching an Adam Sandler film, only in French. It’s not quite as bad as that but it carries the same aura of wanting to be clever comedy but has neither the wit nor panache to rise above being tawdry instead.
Maybe that is harsh but despite the fruitful premise it is difficult to fathom what Judor and writers Noé Debré and Blanche Gardin, who also plays outspoken camp member Gaya, was going for. There are hints of satire present in the unravelling of the camp structure exposing the flaws in their basic principles of their autonomous existence, but this quickly gives way to lazier, base humour instead.
The targets of the humour – if there are any – are also uncertain, beginning as a possible endorsement for going back to nature and shunning the bustle of city life and the convenience of technology, but soon prefers to paint the commune’s denizens as barmy, self-righteous hippies with a non-conformist ideology that betrays itself from being too absurd in its radicalism.
Phones and tablets are confiscated because one chap is “electro-sensitive” though Maeva keeps hold of hers out of defiance, which is just as well otherwise they wouldn’t have learned about the pandemic. Sleeping arrangements are not limited to monogamy, food is usually organic (meat is still acceptable) and there is no caste system or hierarchal structure in the commune.
Discarding social conformity also extends to sexual orientation and gender assignment, represented by a child no-one seems to know the sex of because they have rejected labels. The women also celebrate their periods rather than resenting them via song whilst the men lament not being able to share the monthly suffering of the women.
No doubt such broad character definitions will upset those with new age sensitivities and will resent the assertion that the commune folk are loopy, but this wild depiction of their ideals is designed to speak to the larger portion of the audience who will be baffled by it all. That is not to say that everything they believe in is treated as wrong or barmy, but the balance will feel uneven for some.
Anyone familiar with the aphorism “communism works in theory but not in practice” can predict what happens once the pandemic hits. Engineer Simon (Youssef Hajdi) is outcast when feared to have been infected; a month later the others find he has built himself a self-sufficient tree house with hot water, electricity and decent food which naturally they want use of in the name of communal sharing.
Simon is happy to share but when he asks for something in return as per the camp rules of quid pro quo, he is suddenly accused of exploiting his fellow campmates for his own gain. Elsewhere commune shaman Claude (Bun-hay Mean) is ostracised when it turns out he is in fact a dope smoking vagrant living off the others; when he asks for help he is rejected in the same breath as someone extols the virtues of taking care of everyone equally!
The biggest setback is that the film is only 81-minutes long thus doesn’t have enough time to explore its themes with any real depth, nor offer any insight to the characters beyond their comic worth or convenience to the plot. This would explain why the folk at the commune are largely stereotypical, although to be fair it is not a trope that can be depicted with much subtlety if there are the subject of a spoof.
A lot of the humour in lampooning the flaws of unrestricted mass autonomy is where the script shines and shows some thought has gone into giving this a deeper purpose than to simply mock, but is undone with the bawdier material, including the uncomfortable subplot of Victor trying to sleep with busty 16-year old Maeva (she admits to looking 19 while actress Claire Chust has to over 21 if she is a day).
Returning to the Adam Sandler comparison, this is also noticeable in the casting as Eric Judor is nearly 50 while Celia Rosich is not just clearly younger but very attractive in that “no way would she be married to him” sense we are forced to ignore in Hollywood cinema that Europe usually avoids. Just a small niggle but Jeanne has less to do than the likes of Gaya and the other commune women so make of that what you will.
Problemos boasts a nice idea, gorgeous photography, a very game cast – and even a nice twist by not delivering the expected copout ending – making for it watchable enough to see it through to the end. However the intentions behind it and what it is trying to say are successfully defined or relayed, putting this somewhere between mean spirited romp and half-baked satire.